May 7, 2010

Slapping the suitcase of American mystery

When one of the members of April Smith’s band, the Great Picture Show, hauls a small suitcase up on the stage and turns it into a rhythm instrument, slapping it and hitting it with a tambourine, he connects the show to a whole tradition of American displacement and weirdness.

April Smith, whose recent single I can’t stop hearing in my head and whistling to myself, clearly falls into the sub genre of indie-inflected Billie Holiday followers, of young white women jazz singers, like Norah Jones, but there’s also a pop sensibility and, with the make-shift instrument, a connection to this other, reoccurring element of American music. We saw it a lot with the “freak folk” side of indie music, this injection of strangeness. Sometimes it was a weird voice, a weird look, weird religious references or references to secret histories, weird stage settings or costume design, though maybe the most common thing was the weird instrument. In some cases this is a common instrument that just isn’t used in pop music, like Bob Dylan’s recent use of the accordion or Joanna Newsome’s harp, and other times it’s stranger. Other times it’s like an instrument you might find moldering in the attic next to Civil War photos, somehow always known and never, historical and imaginary, familiar and so profoundly freakish.

Tom Waits specializes in exuberantly using strange instruments and strange things as instruments: the calliope! glockenspiel! harmonium and chromelodeon! chairs, brake drums and Indonesian seed pods, battery-operated bullhorns and pianos hit with 2×4s! He started doing this with the album Swordfishtrombones, which, obviously, is named for exactly the kind of instrument that doesn’t exist but which, if it did, would be found with owl-eaten mouse carcasses filling the horn end and covered in dust in the attic where the one-legged German immigrant and Union vet would have left it when the band broke up in 1884 and he had to skip town with the sister of one of his wives.

Read the rest of the essay, It Sounds Weird, @ The Currator